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Fred Pearce: overpopulation worries are a potentially racist distraction

Matilda Lee

2nd February, 2010

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce, author of the new book Peoplequake, on why overconsumption is the key issue, the need for relaxed immigration laws, and why men should look after children

Matilda Lee: What spurred you to write a book on population?

Fred Pearce: We had huge population concerns during the 1960s and into the 70s, then people rather lost interest in it. Just in the last two or three years, I've noticed that people have been talking about it again in the context of climate change and new concerns about food security. I wanted to look at what was actually happening to the world's population and the relationship to resource use and environmental damage.

ML: Many respected environmentalists - from Lester Brown to Jonathon Porritt - believe we are headed for disaster by not supporting family planning in countries with high fertility rates and dire poverty. What do you make of this?

FP: Overpopulation is the wrong issue. Forty years ago, women were having 5 or 6 children each. There really was a population bomb going off. Actually, around the world today, women have diffused the population bomb. Women now have an average of 2.6 children globally and the replacement level [demographers' figure for the amount of offspring women must have to maintain the population] is 2.3  - so we are really very close to replacement level fertility rate. There are exceptions, but those rates are still coming down very fast in most of the world. I'm not sure how much more we could actually do, short of really unpleasant Draconian policies, to make that happen any faster.

People like Jonathon Porritt and David Attenborough say it is the number one issue - Lester Brown often says it, but has a more nuanced stance. Every time people say that, they are not talking about the real elephant in the living room, which is over consumption.

If we're talking about overconsumption, we're talking about what we're doing. If we're talking about overpopulation, we're somehow blaming the planetary predicament on poor families in India, or Africa, or parts of the Middle East. That really ain't fair.

ML: Yet the Optimum Population Trust chairman Roger Martin says that ninety-five per cent of the poorest countries have identified rapid population growth as a significant factor inhibiting their development and keeping their people poor.

FP: People aren't just more mouths to feed, they are hands to work and brains to think. I'm not arguing in favour of fast population growth, but let's have a slightly more nuanced discussion about this. Fast population growth - where it is still happening - is a problem. Let's address it in a sensible way. If you are a woman farmer in Africa, you need children to work on the farm. You have rational reasons for wanting children. Let's be aware of that.

You can demonstrate in a lot of places that more people can - not necessarily will - but can be good for the environment and for the local community. The one famous case is the Machakos area in Kenya - which was on the verge of going to desert, but with an increasing population, there were more people to dig terraces, to organise water systems to grow more crops.

I'm very wary of people sitting in Europe deciding what an appropriate population level is for a country far away.

ML: The first part of your book traces the history of the population control movement and makes some disturbing links between eugenics and the founders of the modern environmental movement. Do you believe that there is a racist element to population control measures?

FP: There has been. I suspect that in some places, there still is. I think it's dying. But we have to be careful to look for it. You can see it as underpinning the notion that it's people in countries far away, with dark skins, breeding, that are damaging planetary systems and are causing greenhouse gases emissions. How dare we! Is there racism in that? I suspect there is a bit.

ML: What do you mean when you write: 'demographically, Europe is living on borrowed time'?

FP: Fertility rates in Europe are so low. Britain, and parts of northern Europe aren't too bad. But in southern and eastern Europe, fertility rates are below 1.5, and as low as 1.1. The indigenous population, if I can put it that way, is going to die out. At those rates, by the end of the century, those countries will have lost 80-90 per cent of their population.

ML: As regards social policies, you say that the key to raising fertility back to replacement levels is to 'instil new responsibilities in men'. What are you talking about?

FP: We're talking about men taking more responsibility for childcare in the home, employers taking more responsibility for childcare in the workplace, the state taking more responsibility for childcare in the wider society.

The very lowest, and oddly, the very highest fertility rates in the world are in patriarchal societies. Once women are asserting their rights to an independent life, to be employed and have a wider role in civic society - if they are forced to choose between children and work, they choose work and go on what one might call 'childbirth strike'.

ML: You write that 'national border controls are the new apartheid of a globalised world economy'. Should rich countries simply open their borders to all migrants?

FP: One libertarian economist I interviewed argues that if money can move freely around the world, we have to have free movement of people. I agree with this. You cannot say that money has a higher priority, or right, to move than people do. Let's get our priorities right and put people first, for once.

People don't come to Europe in order to live on welfare. They want to work. We need them, but what tends to happen is that we then criminalise them. That is a real form of exploitation. You have an economic situation that requires people, and then when they come, you give them no rights at all.

ML: Do you see any justification for environmentalists' focus on population issues - or is it, in your view, a distraction from the real issue - the fact that the rich world over consumes?

FP: I think it is a distraction now. Looked at in a global sense, it seems to be rich people engaging in the really unpleasant 'life boat' ethics, of saying, 'we're alright, the problem is the other people'.

Jonathon Porritt talks about exponential population growth - there is no such thing. My judgement is that by the middle of the century, world population is going to be falling. We've got a few decades, and an awful lot of technical innovation and new ideas about how we live our lives, before we get there. But there is something to fight for. We're not doomed.

Peoplequake by Fred Pearce (Eden Project Books, £12.99) is published on 4th February, 2010.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor

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